Much of what Austhink does these days is concerned with “collective wisdom” – the knowledge that a group as a whole has.   As Surowiecki famously pointed out, when the conditions are right, the wisdom of the group can be superior to that of the individuals making it up.

However finding out what that collective wisdom is – identifying, assembling or articulating it – is often an interesting challenge.  Various methods or approaches have been developed, suited to various sorts of groups and types of knowledge.

Not surprisingly, the quality or “grade” of the collective wisdom generated by these various methods can differ markedly.

Here is one way to distinguish some main grades:

  1. Grade 1 (the lowest grade) results simply from statistical enumeration of individual opinions, as happens in, for example, a standard opinion poll, plebiscite or election.   The “wisdom of the crowd” identified by an opinion poll is just the majority opinion.
  2. Grade 2 still results from statistical enumeration of individual opinions, but those opinions have been improved by some appropriate collective process, i.e. they have benefited from some relevant kind of interaction in the group.  In deliberative polling, for example, the collective wisdom is the result of a poll taken after a collective deliberative process in which individuals are presumed to benefit from deliberating with each other.   The group opinion, as reflected in the result of the poll, is better than Grade 1 just insofar as the individual opinions are better as a result of the process.  (Note that there is a whole cluster of interesting issues to do with whether, and under what conditions, group deliberative processes do lead to improved opinions.)
  3. In Grade 3, the collective wisdom is not just aggregated or enumerated individual opinion, but results from some kind of synthesis of individual opinions.  One of the simplest forms this can take is just an averaging, as for example in the well-known Galton “guess the weight of the ox” scenario (as described by Surowiecki).   A more interesting type of collective wisdom at this level is price in some kind of market, including a prediction market.
  4. In Grade 4,  the collective wisdom is a synthesis of individual opinions, plus the collective opinion is endorsed by all or at least most of the individuals.   The outcome of a prediction market, for example, doesn’t make Grade 4 because the current price is deemed by most participants to be “wrong”; some regard it as too high (hence they’re not buying) and others see it as too low (hence they’re not selling).  However IPCC reports do appear to be Grade 4 on this scheme.  They result from a elaborate collaborative process of drafting (synthesizing the information and views of the participating scientists – views which might themselves be improved by the process) and the result is generally endorsed by those scientists.

I doubt that the classification scheme described above is the best/ideal scheme.  How could it be improved?

Indeed, maybe through a collaborative process we could with a scheme which itself consists of “AAA-grade” collective  wisdom (in its own terms).  Wouldn’t that be neat?